More ‘Miserables’

The cast of “Les Miserables” perform “One Day More.”

By John Benson

A roller-coaster ride of emotions is how esteemed Broadway and West End musical director James Powell describes seeing the recently released feature film “Les Miserables.”

Powell’s ties to Boublil & Schonberg’s legendary musical go well beyond fandom. Not only did he appear in “Les Miserables” at London’s Palace Theatre but later was asked to take over as the production’s resident director.

“I’m so close to the show, and I was absolutely blown away by the film in many places,” said Powell, calling from England’s Suffolk Coast. “I think there’s always going to be room for new ideas, and I hope the film and stage musical kind of really do help each other in their popularity.”

Those folks who have seen the movie and are now motivated to take in the live musical have their chance when the national touring production of “Les Miserables” returns to Cleveland from Tuesday to Sunday at the Palace Theatre.

This revamped show presents the famous story with new staging and re-imagined scenery inspired by the paintings of Victor Hugo, the 19th- century author of the classic novel that inspired the musical. More so, Powell said the cherished score — “I Dreamed a Dream,” “On My Own,” “Stars,” “Bring Him Home,” “Do You Hear the People Sing?,” “One Day More,” “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” “Master of the House” and more — is edgier with a modern flair while still remaining true to the original.

For those worried this version of “Les Miserables” will miss its mark, Powell stressed all of the beloved moments from the epic and uplifting story about the survival of the human spirit remains.

“It’s got color. We’ve re- orchestrated the music and the story-telling we wanted to really pull out,” Powell said. “The RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] had a very specific style. It was a kind of the black box situation where you used actors to create an environment, where here we kind of use color. We went to Victor Hugo’s portfolio. He was quite a prolific artist, and we’re using his own work projected to represent landscape or setting of an environment. It looks beautiful.”

Speaking to Powell’s vision is a creative sequence where modern technology transports the audience into the sewers. More so, he said Hugo’s main book — all 400 pages of it — proved to be the guiding light for the show.

“Les Miserables” is one of the most popular musicals ever written. It has been seen by nearly 60 million people worldwide in 42 countries and in 21 languages, which leads to the question: What is it about a story revolving around fugitive Jean Valjean in 19th-century France that continues to captivate audiences over a quarter of a century after its stage debut?

“I think the music has stood the test of time, I really do,” Powell said. “It’s that wonderful mix of classic and contemporary feel to it, but also you can get your hooks into the story. You can revisit it and revisit it, and it crosses all generations. Now younger people, which is fabulous, are coming in droves to see it because musicals are now cool. I suppose the success of ‘Glee’ and all of that, it’s got a great popularity with that generation, which is great for all of us who work in our industry.”

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